With Jerry Watkins securely behind bars, the actual killers of Peggy Sue Altes were now free to pursue their depraved criminality without fear of having to answer for their bloody deeds. For 16 years after committing this unspeakable act of evil, the murderous jackals continued to stalk the innocent while Peggy Sue’s blood stained their clothes and the sound of her cries and pleadings reverberated in their drug and alcohol soaked memory. And despite the knowledge that Jerry Watkins could not have been Peggy Sue’s assailant, which included star witness, Dennis Ackeratt, recanting his testimony, Hancock County officials fought like hell to keep the wrong man behind bars.
Eventually, on April 25, 2000, U.S. District Judge David E. Hamilton overturned Watkins’ 1986 conviction, citing DNA and additional evidence investigators and prosecutors failed to disclose to the defense at the time of Watkins’ trial. In addition to the DNA evidence eliminating Watkins as Peggy Sue’s rapist, Judge Hamilton’s decision cited the eyewitness to Peggy Sue’s abduction at Porter Park, another suspect who had failed a polygraph, men who had admitted involvement in the crime to others and a man who was seen wearing bloody clothes the night of the murder all as evidence “that no reasonable jury would find Watkins guilty of murdering Peggy Sue Altes.”
Naturally, Myrlene Altes, Peggy Sue’s mother, was devastated. “If you want a pervert out on the street, that’s what you’re going to get. I’m very angry because this guy is dangerous,” Mrs. Altes told reporters. It is certainly true that they were letting a pervert out onto the street. Jerry Watkins had inflicted immeasurable and lasting damage on the Altes family, but he could not have been Peggy Sue’s killer. Those degenerate monsters were still at large, slinking in the shadows between brief stretches behind bars for other criminal offenses.
In August of 2001, the same DNA evidence that led to the release of Jerry Watkins shone a spotlight on one of the shadowy predators. Joseph Mark McCormick was found to be a match to the crime scene DNA to a certainty of one person in 1.5 billion. “We put the evidence through an analyzer and it mapped everything,” Indiana State Police DNA database supervisor Paul Misner told The Daily Reporter. “All we did was use the computer to match the sample we had with anyone in the database. Everyone arrested in Indiana on crimes against persons or serious offenses is required to provide a DNA sample that is kept on record. We just did a cross match and found a match.”
McCormick, who investigators learned was living across the street from Porter Park at the time of Peggy Sue’s abduction, was “in the wind” at the time of his identification. “He is on probation for a theft and burglary conviction in Marion County but has skipped out on his probation officer,” Hancock County Sheriff’s Department Captain Jim Bradbury told reporters. After embarking on a reinvestigation of the case following the Watkins exoneration, Bradbury uncovered another interesting lead that was showing some promise. “I had been talking with a confidential informant that was questioned when the original investigation was going on. I talked with him and he began to tell me little bits about what he knew about the girl’s killing,” Bradbury said. The informant was able to show investigators the precise location where Peggy Sue’s body was found, and according to Bradbury, “He told me things that only someone who was involved in the case would have known.” Bradbury also revealed that the confidential informant was safely behind bars under protective custody.
Detectives also interviewed the young men who were then the young boys seen playing with Peggy Sue at Porter Park prior to her abduction. “The original witnesses to the abduction, who were like 7 years old or 8 years old at the time, said there was more than one (abductor),” Hancock County Sheriff Nicholas Gulling told the Indianapolis Star. “And the information we received subsequently indicates there was more than one.” Here Gulling could be indicating that the confidential informant confirmed this piece of information. Setting aside the DNA match, if all of these witnesses were questioned at the time of the original investigation, why weren’t they taken more seriously then? Even if investigators felt that Watkins was involved, they had ample reason to believe that others participated as well. Yet they discounted and even suppressed that information. Nevertheless, authorities got a tip on Sunday, August 5, that McCormick was in attendance at a party in Morgan County. Investigators rushed to the scene of the festivities, but a slippery McCormick had left the party by the time they got there. They missed him by that much.
On Tuesday, August 7, 2001, 39-year-old Joseph Mark McCormick of Indianapolis walked into the Greenfield police station shortly before noon to turn himself in. His long hair and bushy beard gave him the look of a survivalist or a former Manson family member. He told police he did not have a permanent address and had been living in motels. After learning that he was being sought by authorities, McCormick got a ride from a friend to the police station. The friend, however, didn’t stick around to answer questions. Despite turning himself in to the wrong law enforcement agency, the Greenfield Police held the bedraggled drifter until Hancock County Sheriff’s officials could arrive.
At an initial hearing, McCormick was charged with murder, felony murder and two counts of child abuse to which he pleaded not guilty. Despite new suspects and solid evidence connecting Joseph McCormick to the crime, Hancock County still wasn’t finished trying to put Jerry Watkins back behind bars. “We have seen a lot of twists and turns in the case. The tests show that Jerry Watkins didn’t have anything to do with the sexual assault. That doesn’t mean he didn’t kill her but it does point to McCormick,” said Hancock County Prosecutor Terry Snow, seemingly unable to decide whether to state his case emphatically or undermine it by not letting go of Watkins as a suspect. While indicating that other arrests were possible, Captain Jim Bradbury agreed with Snow that the investigation still included Jerry Watkins. “We are still not done yet,” Bradbury told reporters.
Indeed, they weren’t done, not by a long shot, and not letting go of Jerry Watkins as a suspect was just the beginning. Investigators and prosecutors were just getting started on their clumsy efforts to sabotage their own case, practically ensuring that none of the men responsible for the rape and brutal stabbing of Peggy Sue Altes would do time for her murder.
The Indianapolis Star
The Indianapolis News
The Daily Reporter (Greenfield, Indiana)
Watkins v. Miller, Southern District of Indiana (2000)